Sunday 28 December 2014

The disastrous reality of self-delusion

The Establishment has an incredible ability to convince itself of anything, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 18/08/2013 | 05:00

It's over. Just when we were beginning to think we were doomed to permanent economic recession – it's over. Don't take my word for it, here's the Irish Times headline on Thursday: "Eurozone's powerhouse economies ensure recession grinds to timely halt". And the entire first paragraph of the story consisted of one breathless sentence, unflinching in its certainty: "Europe's recession is over".

The next paragraph told us there was, "much relief among all those who concern themselves with matters economic". And so there should be. In the words of the late, great Roy Orbison, "It's over! It's over! It's ooooooooover!!!!"

This was followed by a separate Irish Times story revealing indications that "Ireland emerged out of recession between April and June". There ye are – we burst forth out of recession and we weren't even paying attention.

Growth is up, unemployment is down. I haven't been this excited since Brian Lenihan told us: "Our plan is working, we've turned the corner". That was in December 2009.

Now, it's true that the Irish Times has drawn firm conclusions from one set of figures that show growth of "0.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2013 compared with the previous quarter." It's true that an economy technically leaves recession if a negative growth pattern is broken. It's true that we're on the pig's back if you don't count unemployment, debt, emigration, shrunken incomes, slashed services and the parents of children with cancer being denied discretionary medical cards.

And it's also true that the reason unemployment is down is because emigration is up.

The point is not whether the Irish Times called it right – I don't know, the data isn't sufficient. And, for the same reason, the Irish Times doesn't know either. The point is the establishment's ability, at all times, to convince itself of anything it wants to believe.

To put it another way – the wonderful talent of being able to convince yourself and the world that you're a serious person even when you've become detached from reality.

The 'establishment' is a handy term that covers politicians, higher civil servants, bankers, bondholders and other monied interests, their pet academics, and the officer corps of the media. These latter see it as their role to – in the words of the late, great Johnny Mercer – accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

And looking last week at some of the "debates" and controversies of the day, it's kind of obvious that the intellectual quality of that establishment is – to be kind – low to middling. I used to believe they were cynically peddling a warped version of reality – it's obvious now that there is much self-delusion at work.

In the period 2002-2008, a period now legendary for its greed and madness, the establishment convinced itself it was brimming with entrepreneurial geniuses who had discovered a "new paradigm". The "experts", the pet academics and the media officer corp took turns policing this view of our little world – assuring us, even as classroom ceilings collapsed on top of children, that we had "the best educational system in the world".

We now look back and call that kind of thing "groupthink". We shake our heads – how could so many allegedly serious people become so detached from reality?

Yet, the same establishment that talked through its arse back then remains in control – and has convinced the vast majority of citizens that it knows how to end this awful national humiliation. All will be well if the citizens stand idly by through mass unemployment, debt, emigration, shrunken incomes, slashed services and the parents of children with cancer being denied discretionary medical cards.

Ten years from now, how will we explain our prolonged timidity as our pockets are picked? How will we see the period 2008-2013? What kind of groupthink, in the face of overwhelming evidence, permits, year after year, policies that are damaging us hugely? And repeated claims that we've turned the corner, that it's all over?

Michael McDowell, a wealthy barrister who occasionally dabbles in politics, jumped to the defence of the State last week, believing it has done a grand job. This was in a spat with Fintan O'Toole. The spat was about the dysfunctional legislature, executive and legal system – O'Toole gave chapter and verse. And McDowell, one of the establishment's best educated, most experienced intellectuals, was remarkably unwilling or unable to meet the argument. Instead, using meaningless name-calling and psychobabble, he denounced those who enjoy wallowing in something called "middle class self-hatred".

Last week, a Dublin business group was reportedly "furious" that the Dublin 1913 Lockout is being commemorated in a two-hour event on O'Connell Street, during which shops will be open and accessible. It condemned the effects on business and said, "the lack of consideration for the ordinary people of Dublin is very disappointing and the lack of consultation gives rise to grave concern".

In a flash, Twitter was awash with links to what the same group said when Queen Liz was about to visit, and the city was in lockdown for days. Welcoming the queen, the group said: "There may be some inconvenience, such as detours, but everything is still open for business."

Now, some claim hypocrisy, but I see self-delusion. Instinct rules – much easier to attack the ghost of Jim Larkin than to question the austerity that finished off so many retail businesses.

Turn on TV3 and the usual pundits are telling us that social welfare deters people from taking jobs. Hundreds of thousands of people (people who pre-2008 took every job going – full-time, part-time, minimum wage, whatever) are now, it appears, refusing to take hundreds of thousands of jobs. And the jobs, apparently, remain unfilled.

Despite the transparent idiocy of this position, the pundits are incandescent with rage. It isn't really a debate unless at least three people are shouting at the same time, leaning forward, wagging fingers. "There's nothing worse you can do to a person, sociologically, than make them dependant on the State."

This nonsense is taken seriously only by student fans of Ayn Rand and those who see Sarah Palin as an innovative thinker. Yet, among people who see themselves as serious, it's sincerely held, and it's delivered with the passion of someone uncovering freshly minted philosophical truths.

Similarly, the people currently, at dinner parties and over cups of coffee, discussing the possibility of starting a new right-wing political party. Throughout the mad years, every right-wing wish-list was ticked off. They had precisely the set-up they wanted – and it ran the country into the ground.

Now, crawling from the wreckage, these geniuses have decided that what went wrong is that the policies weren't right-wing enough. Next time, they'll truly wreck the tax base. Next time, anyone who mentions regulation will go to jail. Next time, we'll be forced to permanently wear the green jersey.

This ability to fantasise sustains the disastrous policies that have followed, here and across Europe, since 2008. Sincerely held self-delusion allows the establishment to convince itself of anything it wants to believe. And, so far, to convince so many others to accept their fantasies.

All together now – it's over, it's over, it's ooooooooover!

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